Le Cinque Terre

 

It may be a cliché, but Italy is really beautiful and charming – not all of it, of course, but most of the country is and certain areas are even more than the rest. Case in point: the “Cinque terre” (literally: ‘five lands’), in the region of Liguria north of La Spezia. To better understand what the Cinque terre are all about you must remember that the geography of this area is most peculiar, with low and jaggy mountains plunging right into the sea. For thousands of years this meant that the few small bays along the coast were as precious for military purposes and to protect ships from bad weather as they were useless, as they were completely separated from whatever roads, cities and resources the mainland had to offer. That is, until the local people decided to go against all odds and to build villages in and over the bays, working inland to connect them with the rest of the country.

Quite incredibly, the project worked out in the end. The hills overlooking the sea were terraced by sheer force and made fertile for cultivation, thus allowing the villages to sustain themselves. The roads, however, were simply impossible to build on such a rough terrain. A massive effort to drill through the mountains and build a train railway was only completed in late Nineteenth century, but apart from this, a number of small coastal villages remained reachable by boat only. This insulation had some positive effects however. No road access also meant that no new houses were built, and no factories – hence nature remained preserved and pristine. A small population couldn’t damage the sea bottom and its life, and no easy trade routes translated into old fashioned shops maintaining their quaint business well into late Twentieth century. In other words, the area is a sort of a unique time capsule.

The Cinque terre are five such villages which turned their peculiarity into a tourist attraction. Very briefly, they are:

Monterosso – The largest and northernmost village;
Vernazza – Probably the most beautiful of the five overall;
Corniglia – Actually a hillside village separated by the sea by a very long stairway, and thus even more unique;
Manarola – The best example of extreme use of the little available land, with its houses apparently piled one on top of the others;
Riomaggiore – The best preserved one, even forbidding the use of rooftop antennas in order not to modernize its look;

The best way to visit the Cinque terre is by ferry during the summer and by train throughout the year. They are just a few minutes apart from each other, and where cars can arrive they cannot stop anyway as the very few parkings available are reserved for the villagers. Another great way to see the villages is by trekking on the very spectacular Via dell’amore (‘lovers’ route’), a long and narrow trail overhanging the sea. Beside the views, the Cinque terre are known for their unique food, of course grown locally in very particular conditions: the olives and their oil, salted anchovies, focaccia bread and the exclusive Sciachetrà wine.